Alexander Skarsgård is everywhere these days. Besides being a regular on HBO’s “True Blood,” Skarsgård has also been tackling the world of indie films, starring in “Melancholia” with Kirsten Dunst and “Disconnect” with Jason Bateman. His indie resume now includes “What Maisie Knew,” a sad, subtle, and distinct film which sheds some light on the topic of divorce as seen through a child’s eyes.
Maisie (Onata Aprile) is a young girl who’s perceptive and still somewhat unaware of what’s going on around her. Maisie’s mother Susanna (Julianne Moore) and father Beale (Steve Coogan) are in constantly heated arguments about something or other. Their relationship ends in divorce, and Maisie is in the middle of it all, caught between her parents’ irresponsibility and immaturity.
The film has a strong opening, not wasting any time in showing Maisie’s parents arguing and completely ignoring and disregarding her. Maisie seeks solace with her babysitter Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and stepfather Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) as she’s tossed from parent to parent, neither of whom have any time for her and only seek to compete with each other out of retaliation.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have given us a unique story point of view. By choosing to focus the story on Maisie and not on her parents, we’re given a look through her eyes as she experiences every fight, every forgotten after-school pick-up, and every time they leave her in the care of someone else without thought. McGehee and Siegel keep Maisie the center of the story. If Maisie is walking away from one of her parents’ fights, then we follow her and the sounds of the fight fade into the background. Never does the film flip to show the perspectives of any of the adults. It’s somewhat refreshing because we’re always getting their side of the story. A child’s point of view is often ignored, even in film, and it’s a brave choice McGehee and Siegel make.
Onata Aprile is subdued and generally quiet as Maisie. She observes without directly getting involved, yet we are acutely aware that everything that happens is for her or because of her. She retains the innocence of her childhood and never for a second gets annoying to watch, which is a feat considering most kids in movies are made out to be too intelligent or too naïve. You come to care for Maisie and her well-being.
Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan are an interesting pair. Coogan usually sticks to comedy, but drama is something he is good at as well. His reluctance to take on his role as a father and underlying anger towards his ex are well played. Moore gets a role where she can really flex her acting talent. Both of Maisie’s parents are selfish, possessive, and extremely absorbed in their own internal issues. You want to hate their characters and feel somewhat sorry for them at some point as well, which is the mark of a good performance.
Joanna Vanderham as Margo is subtle, warm-hearted, and patient with Maisie and her situation. Equally so is Alexander Skarsgård in his role as Lincoln. They both become like parents for Maisie when she has no one else to turn to. Their characters are the safety net that Maisie relies on and learns to love.
The film does run a little long in regards to its story and at some points becomes a bit tedious, but “What Maisie Knew” is well done, subtle, and touching. Every character comes to an epiphany by the end of the film and there’s a resolution in an unexpected way. McGehee and Siegel set out to to tell the story of a life-changing event through the eyes of a little girl and do a good job of it. The film is smart, sad, and hopeful. Maisie easily finds her way into your heart and stays there long after the film is over.